Suzanne Feldman and I connected during an animated discussion of the World Wars at this year’s historical novel society conference. With Suzanne’s new novel set during WWI and my three novels set during that time period, we immediately had a common bond.
In the fall of 2016, I was looking for my next writing project. My debut novel, Absalom’s Daughters, had come out in July, and I was casting around for The Next Thing. I was in my last year of teaching high school, and as I walked into my empty classroom at about seven in the morning, it came to me that I wanted to write something epic, yet intimate, and what could be a better topic than war?
I knew I didn’t want to write about WWII. My father was a Holocaust survivor, and I’d heard all the stories I ever wanted to hear, from him, around the dinner table when I was growing up. Which left me wondering about WWI. As I looked for source material, I noticed that the vast majority of novels about the Great War were about men. An exception, by Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, is an outstanding memoir about women in the war, but in general, it took place outside the field of battle. The more I researched, the more I realized the battle was what I wanted to write about.
But how does one go about writing about a war that’s been so beautifully summed up in All Quiet on the Western Front? The answer to that, I discovered, was to write about the women.
When I started writing Sisters of the Great War, I knew I wanted to explore the lives of the women on the front lines. This led me to look more closely at the medical corps—the nurses and ambulance drivers. The drivers, I discovered, were mostly women, transporting the wounded away from the chaos of the front lines. The nurses, of course, were right there beside them, elbow deep in the conflict.
To keep the book intimate and personal, I began my research with the memoirs and diaries of women who served in the medical corps. Some of the diaries were incredibly compelling. Anne Powell’s Women in the War Zone: Hospital Service in the First World War, is a compilation of the diaries and journals of women from all over the wartime map. I found narratives from the European theater as well as from Serbia and Poland. The ones I was looking for, from France, Belgium and other locations along the Western Front, were there as well, in vivid detail.
One book in particular, really informed my novel, and that was a slender volume entitled ‘Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of War,’ by Helen Zenna Smith (Feminist Press 1989). The author, a British woman and a veteran of the Ambulance Corps, outlines the day-by-day horrors of picking up wounded soldiers and transporting them to the Casualty Clearing Stations (Hospitals). Her story is unwavering, blunt, and gripping, but what really struck me was the ending. The war, having been won, was over. Everyone was sent home, and Ms. Smith went home to London where her experiences and contributions were unacknowledged. Despite the celebrations, victory touched the women who had been at the Front differently than the men. The men were hailed as returning heroes—survivors. The women, as made obvious in Ms. Smith’s final passages, were left out in the cold to mull the differences in their roles in war and society, and to reach their own conclusions about each. Ms. Smith’s own conclusions are made evident in her title.
Unlike Ms. Smith’s memoir, my novel, Sisters of the Great War returns the main characters to lives transformed. The two naïve young women from Baltimore, who fled their controlling father and their limited futures to volunteer in a war zone, find that their wartime roles provide them with an independence rarely granted to women. In the midst of bombings, heartache, and loss, they come to understand their own capabilities and worth. This hard-won sense of self will guide them through the challenges yet to come.
Sisters of the Great War by Suzanne Feldman ~~ August 1914. While Europe enters a brutal conflict unlike any waged before, the Duncan household in Baltimore, Maryland, is the setting for a different struggle. Ruth and Elise Duncan long to escape the roles that society, and their controlling father, demand they play. Together, the sisters volunteer for the war effort—Ruth as a nurse, Elise as a driver.
Stationed at a makeshift hospital in Ypres, Belgium, Ruth soon confronts war’s harshest lesson: not everyone can be saved. Rising above the appalling conditions, she seizes an opportunity to realize her dream to practice medicine as a doctor. Elise, an accomplished mechanic, finds purpose and an unexpected kinship within the all-female Ambulance Corps. Through bombings, heartache and loss, Ruth and Elise cherish an independence rarely granted to women, unaware that their greatest challenges are still to come.
Sisters of the Great War releases today!Many thanks for sharing the story behind Sisters of the Great War, Suzanne. I love WWI novels and have already added yours to my TBR list. Best wishes for success.
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To keep all you readers of A Writer of History enthralled, author Jeffrey K. Walker has contributed several posts for which I am very grateful. Today, he shares a timely perspective on pandemics.
Many thanks, Jeff.
I’ve written three novels all set during a pandemic. Okay, I advertise these books as “First World War and 1920s,” but that includes the time of what is known as the “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918 to 1920. This particular strain of H1NI avian influenza didn’t originate in Spain, but even incorrect labels have a tendency to stick.
I didn’t prominently feature the flu pandemic in my books, but it does get a mention in two of them. In my third novel, No Hero’s Welcome, influenza explains why a young British officer who’d only come of age to join the fight in 1918 never made it to the front:
“His mother’s family had an ancestral heap in County Tyrone where he’d been dragooned into spending summers as a boy. As a result of this unenthusiastic connection to Ulster, he’d been commissioned in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in September 1918, just in time to contract the Spanish influenza. Out of consideration for his family’s feelings, he’d decided not to die, but instead endured a six-week convalescence, finally joining his battalion in France on the 14th day of November, 1918.”
In my second book, Truly Are the Free, the flu pandemic provided a convenient deus ex machina for killing off a supporting character. This was the oldest brother of my protagonist, a strapping and popular boxer within whose shadow the protagonist had long wilted.
Here’s what Ned Tobin thought about the flu and his big brother, Bobby:
“He couldn’t bear to imagine Bobby dying the way he saw those men in France, gasping and starving for air as they drowned in their own overflowing lungs. So the great Bobby Tobin, felled by no man in the ring, was carried away on the 12th of October, 1918 in an overcrowded New Jersey Army hospital by a little bug he couldn’t see, let alone fight.”
So a useful tool to deal with inconvenient minor characters. In hindsight, I should’ve made the Spanish flu a main character, given our current unpleasantness. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.
But here’s something else I found out in my meanderings around last century’s pandemic. Besides the obvious similarities to our present coronavirus troubles, there was an eerily similar confluence of infectious disease and violence stoked by racism.
With mass protests triggered by the on-camera murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, white America is getting an overdue history lesson, including for many a first encounter with the deadly 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
(Flashback scenes from this horrible event feature in the first season of the popular new HBO series, Watchmen.) In just over 24 hours of violence, triggered by a dubious allegation of assault by a white woman elevator operator against a black shoeshiner, as many as 200 black and 50 white Tulsans were killed and a prosperous African-American community was burned to the ground. However, Tulsa came two years after a much more widespread and deadly horror known as the Red Summer of 1919.
Let me set the scene—it seems impossible from our vantage point a century later. When the United States declared war on Germany in March 1917, there was debate within the African-American community whether or not to support the war effort. Some considered it a white man’s war fought for white men’s interests. But the majority, led by W.E.B. Du Bois and others, chose to support the war effort. The belief among most African-Americans was “if we fight a man’s war, we’ll be treated as men when we return.” They could not have been more wrong.
I based a pivotal scene in my second book on an actual event from the Red Summer. A main character, Chester Dawkins, returns to the United States after serving in a “colored” regiment in France.
Although the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, wouldn’t allow black troops to fight within his white infantry divisions, he did send four regiments to the French Army. And after four years of catastrophic losses, the French were ecstatic to have them. Since the rest of the American forces weren’t ready for combat when the Germans launched their final massive Spring Offensive of 1918, it was these “colored” Americans serving with the French Fourth Army who found themselves in combat longer than any other American troops.
It was with one of these regiments that my young Lieutenant Dawkins covers himself with glory, winning the Croix de guerre. When he finally returns home, he lands at the port of Norfolk, Virginia, and finds himself in a victory parade arranged by the black population of the city to welcome home their returning heroes. This hard-earned and well-deserved celebration is set upon by white Marines and sailors with clubs and rifle butts while the white police force looks on.
My young hero is rescued from this violence by a cook who pulls him into the safety of his café. He sits Chester down and pours him some coffee:
“Chester stared down into the blackness in his coffee cup. He was startled by the hot tears pushing against the back of his eyes. He’d seen men die, beat the Germans, made the world safe for democracy. And nothing had changed here. Nothing. He gave a sharp sniff, raising the coffee to his lips to camouflage his bitterness.”
The violence raged across the country from early spring to late summer. But it represented something new in the centuries-long oppression of black Americans — they fought back. With 350,000 African-American doughboys returning from France, they were in no mood to accept the subservient and servile roles assigned them previously.
In the end, more than 25 violent riots took the lives of hundreds of African-Americans and dozens of white Americans.
Just as these mass eruptions of violence were occurring, America was still struggling with an influenza pandemic. The Spanish flu ravaged America in three waves. The first hit the US from March through July 1918. This was the mildest wave, in a population of 100 million resulting in about 75,000 deaths (one of the more notable being a grandfather of the current President). The second and more deadly wave emerged in August 1918 and ran through January 1919, killing 200,000 more Americans. A third wave began two months later in March 1919 and flared into the summer, overlapping with about half the violence of the Red Summer.
There are of course significant differences between what America and the world faced during the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1920 and what we’re facing now. By the time the Spanish flu emerged in 1918, millions had been slaughtered in the carnage of the First World War.
The widespread deaths caused by the pandemic served to export some of the mass production of death from the battlefield to the home front. All people—both soldier and civilian—were exposed to death on a colossal scale.
Historically, these rapid and widespread moments of tragic death have had significant effects on social outlook, cultural norms, and even economic systems. In the 14th century, the Black Death (as the bubonic plague was known) killed somewhere between one-quarter and one-third the population of Europe in just a few years. Colossally tragic on a scale we can hardly imagine, the plague made an end of the perniciously unequal system of land ownership and wealth distribution known as feudalism. Labor is worth much more, after all, when they’re just not as many laborers. Although it was not the sole catalyst for the Renaissance, the Black Death was certainly a necessary factor. The omnipresence and capriciousness of death led to more interest in enjoying this life rather than worrying about what came after; many surrounded themselves with beauty.
Likewise, the widespread and unpredictable death from both the carnage on the Western Front and from the Spanish flu uncorked runaway innovation and breaking of all the rules in the artistic, musical, literary, design, and fashion worlds that would characterize the Roaring Twenties.
It may sound an odd thing to say, but history suggests we might not have had jazz or Art Deco or modern literature without the suffering and death of the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic.
It’s too soon to predict what will emerge from the suffering and death and confusion surrounding us now as we struggle with COVID-19. Certainly our short-term focus must remain flattening the curve and caring for the infected. But we can already see inklings of what may lie ahead in the Black Lives Matter protests, changing attitudes toward universal healthcare, and serious debate about income inequality in the United States.
It’s a curious thing with us humans. It often takes catastrophe to spur us into doing the right thing.
Reading Jeffrey K. Walker’s CV I discovered many surprises. I knew he’d been in the military and is a lawyer, but he’s also had top secret security clearance, was a senior advisor working on a US Government funded project to build the capacity of the Iraqi national criminal justice system, and was a Judge Advocate in the United States Air Force. His professional writings include titles like “Strategic Targeting and International Law: The Ambiguity of Law Meets the Reality of a Single- Superpower World.” And he was also a B-52 navigator/bombardier. Today, he’s sharing an article he wrote a while back on what it takes to write fiction as a career. Over to you, Jeff.
I got a lot of traffic on a post I did two weeks ago about new careers after 50. Since my own newest career is writing, I thought I’d follow-up by talking about this crazy idea of becoming an author at the wizened age of 50 or (gasp!) even older. Kids these days…
The Font of All Knowledge regarding aging, the American Association of Retired Persons, says there were 108.7 million Americans older than 50 in 2014—and there are more than that now. Of that 108.7+ million, about 80% think they have a book in them. I’d cut that by a factor of ten to get to those who may undertake writing a book one day. So for those 8.7+ million of you dying to put pen to paper—”pen to paper,” how quaint!—I have a few things I’ve learned along the way that I’ll share.
It doesn’t really matter whether you’re fully retired, working part-time, or still pulling fifty-hour weeks at The Day Job. Becoming a writer really just requires saying, “I’m a writer.” And then actually writing something. That, too.
You’ll be shocked how hard it is to say something that simple… or at least say it while sober in respectable company. Sometimes, it’s hard to say it even to your own family. And on your worst writing days, saying it to yourself is hardest of all. Like every new writer who ever lived, you’ll feel like an impostor. This Impostor Syndrome lasts until you hold that first published book in your flop-sweaty hands. And it then recurs with each subsequent book project. It’s a neurosis to be managed, not eliminated.
The best place to start your writing career is with a personal inventory. This consists of several components:
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
This isn’t as obvious as it seems. Why do you want to write a book? There really isn’t a wrong answer, but you need to honestly assess your objectives in taking up writing because that informs much of what follows. Do you want to write a compelling memoir for wholly personal reasons? A family history for your children and relatives? A swashbuckling historical adventure you’ve been noodling over in your head for years? An artsy and innovative high-brow novel? A non-fiction book about a topic in which you have special expertise? Or straight-up commercial fiction in the thriller or romance or mystery genre? All are equally valid reasons. And you may be motivated by multiple desires.
Not insignificantly, do you want to make enough money from your writing to replace all or part of your income from The Day Job? To supplement your retirement income? Or to cover the costs of producing and marketing your book? Let’s be clear about earning money from your writing.
When you inevitably run into a self-identified writer who claims, “Oh, no, no, no! My art is above base considerations of filthy lucre,” punch this individual in the face and move on. You can omit the punch, if you fear prosecution. This insufferable auteur-type has nothing to teach you and will guilt you about wanting to make money from your intellectual property. There’s also a high probability this person’s writing is unreadably self-indulgent.
Ahh, Time! That most precious of resources! And I’ll stop there before I go all poetic. When I first said, “My name is Jeff and I’m a writer,” I had the dual advantages of the financial resources and the spousal tolerance to spend a year just writing fiction. I managed to produce all of one novel and most of another in that year. Once that year was over, however, I had to return to Actual Paid Employment, taking on a growing number of hours of legal consulting work. My third novel took almost two years—there’s a definite correlation there.
If you’re fully retired from The Day Job, you probably have more time on your hands than you ever expected or currently want, so your available writing time is extensive. On the other hand, if you’re still working full-time, don’t despair. The question for you is what time can you carve out for writing? You should approach calendaring and protecting your writing time the way your investment advisor tells you to save for retirement—pay yourself first. Schedule writing time, announce it to your family and friends, and then guard it like a junkyard dog. Also, develop an immunity to the indulgent little smiles and nods you’ll get from people when you tell them it’s your “writing time.”
Most writers I know set aside time during the same part of the day, with the majority preferring mornings. I know a few who swear their most productive time is late at night. Having taken to heart F. Scott Fitzgerald’s admonition about the dark night of the soul, I’m decidedly a morning writer.
If you have a comfortable pension, social security, and/or 401(k) income [or whatever retirement savings mechanism your country offers], this is easy beans. If you’re somewhat younger and/or somewhat poorer, there will be trade-offs. There are two components to your financial inventory: the money you need to keep body and soul together and the budget for your book. Even in this day of self-publishing that’s as easy as hitting the send button on a Kindle file, unless you’re impervious to embarrassment and have no concern over making sales, your book is going to need some capital investment. (I have an entire blog on book budgeting scheduled in the near future.)
You must honestly assess your level of self-discipline. Generally, your spouse or significant other will be more than happy to help with this. It’s likely he or she has already rendered an opinion.
The most important thing separating people who just want to say, “I’m a writer” (usually spoken with a Manhattan and a cigarette) from those who actually want to do writing, is theself-discipline they bring to the task. There is only one way to make that stack of manuscript pages get thicker—writing them one word, one sentence, and one paragraph at a time. As the always sage and seldom sober Papa Hemingway taught us, “All you have to do is right one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” Then write another one.
There are lots of techniques and tricks to keep your forward momentum—I’ll write about some of those in a future post, too—but there’s no substitute for grit, for the sticktoitiveness that will muscle you through your first agonizing draft. Self-discipline is also the only known preventative cure for writer’s block. That and a lot of bourbon.
So give yourself some time for a mano a mano with that person in the mirror. If you’re somewhat certain you can handle the delayed gratification of creating a 120,000-word manuscript and then putting it through half a dozen (or more) vicious edits and revisions, then welcome to the writer’s tribe. If not, you may want to consider blogging or podcasting instead. Or maybe stick to golf.
I don’t want to sound all New Agey and Group Huggy about this, but writing does require a deep well of emotional reserves. No matter how successful your prior professional life may have been, you’re exposing yourself to a whole new world of doubts, criticisms, inadequacies, and general neuroses when you embark on your new writing career. Remember there will be no mediation between your literary creations and the very judgmental reading public. It’s all yours and you’re hanging out there naked, protected only by the words you’ve written.
In addition, can you keep yourself emotionally bounded by realistic expectations? You’re unlikely to become fantastically rich or land a guest spot on a late-night talk show. The best way to ground your expectations is through honest introspective analysis at the “Motivation” step of this personal inventory. There’s a reason that one is first.
On the other hand, there is no joy like the elation of positive reviews, encouraging comments from other writers, or sales reports that prove people have spent their hard-earned money on your book.
Since I’m talking to people over 50, let me caution against deluding yourself about the physicality of writing. When I was a 19-year-old college student, I could sit at a typewriter for 12 or 14 hours and pound out that overdue research paper. Not so easy four decades later. For me, there’s eyestrain, shoulder pain, a sore lower back, and mental fogginess that kicks in after a few hours of intense writing. It’s not a good idea to plan your writing life around marathon sessions. And that loops right back to time and self-discipline. That’s not to say there won’t be random days when you’re completely Lost In Storyland and the words are coming in a flood. On those glorious and rare days, write until you drop. Then take 1000 mg of ibuprofen and a few shots of brown liquor.
How much support can you expect from those around you? First and foremost, you need to have The Writing Talk with your spouse or significant other. The reality is you’re going to disappear behind a closed door for long stretches of time. You’re going to need agreement to be left alone. (See, supra, protecting your writing time.) By happenstance, I married a woman who is both very supportive of my writing and—double bonus!—an outstanding editor. (I’ll talk more about our “family business” approach to writing in a future blog.) My wife, Kay-Kay, and I also have three children and a couple of grandchildren. You need to factor them into the equation, too. (More on my adult kids’ role in the “family business” later, too.)
I’m an attorney by training, so I’ve spent most of my adult life writing professionally. You simply can’t avoid it if you’re making a living at the bar. I can’t count the number of times someone’s asked me, usually at some writer’s conference, “Oh, so you’re new to writing?” Well, no, I’m not. I’m a new novelist, but I’ve been a professional writer for years.
What I’ve long carried in my toolbox is a thorough knowledge of and years of experience in the mechanics of writing English prose. And the importance of that is not to be gainsaid. It’s often remarked in writing workshops, “Know the rules before you choose to break them.” I came in knowing the rules, so I feel entitled to break them when necessary.
If you consider yourself a weak or awkward writer, you’ll need to begin farther upstream.
If your mechanics aren’t solid, best start at the local university, community college, or writing center to sharpen your skates. I caution against jumping into creative writing as a means of learning basic grammar, punctuation, and elements of style. That will only undermine your self-discipline and exacerbate your Impostor Syndrome.
If your kids and grandkids routinely roll their eyes and beg you not to tell that same story again, you may have well-developed storytelling skills. (Hey, at least they remember them, right?) And being a working writer extends well beyond putting words on paper. Even if you’re picked up with a juicy contract by one of the Big Five publishing houses, unless your last name ends with King or Gabaldon or Grisham, most of the marketing for your book is going to fall on your shoulders. You may have deep prior skills in that area. Public speaking is an important part of any author’s life—book club chats, library presentations, book signings, school visits, and more. If nothing else, you’ve lived long enough to work through your fears and know the value of sticking to a long-term project with a difficult but achievable goal.
None of this is intended to discourage you from your new career as a writer. Rather, it’s meant to give you some ideas for approaching your new writerly life with a clear eye and well-grounded expectations. But the payoff can be enormous—and not necessarily in dollars. Although dollars are nice. It’s in the process of creating something beautiful and moving and lasting that will survive long after you’re gone. And that’s priceless.
Jeffrey K. Walker writes historical fiction. His award-winning Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy explores World War One and its aftermath. The trilogy includes: None of Us the Same, Truly Are the Free, and No Hero’s Welcome.
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